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Vaxing lyrical: poetry from the jab centre

A poetry project at the Francis Crick Institute sees many sharing signs of Covid worry, anxiety, hope and unity. Jane Clinton visited the Crick’s vaccination centre

22 July, 2021 — By Jane Clinton

Rainbow effect: The many poems outside the Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross. Photo: Ed Prosser/Francis Crick Institute

OUTSIDE The Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross, a series of poems are on display in the colours of the rainbow.

The words “gratitude”, “faith”, and “grief” can be found on these panels positioned at the entrance of its Covid-19 vaccination centre.

The 12 poems (two of which are in Bengali and two are in Somali) were inspired by patients, volunteers and those living locally to what has become for many where they received their jabs.

This exhibition, entitled A drop of hope: poetry from a vaccination centre, is the result of a collaboration between Poet in the City and the Crick.

The Crick began operating in April 2015 and became fully operational in 2017 in its state-of-the-art King’s Cross building, making it the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe.

In January, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) and the Crick partnered to open a large-scale Covid-19 vaccination centre.

It is overseen by UCLH and the staff includes more than 300 volunteers from the Crick and its partners. So far the Crick has given more than 79,000 vaccinations.

As part of this poetry project, visitors to the vaccine centre were invited to fill out a postcard reflecting on the pandemic and their thoughts and feelings about getting vaccinated.

Volunteers, staff and people living near the Crick were also invited to contribute through workshops and interviews.

Each poem captures the impact of the pandemic: the deep sadness, the anxiety, the isolation, the quiet, the kindness and the hope.

Nazneen Ahmed, reflected on her pregnancy when she wrote her poem entitled dhonnobad – a Bengali term that most closely translates in English to “I acknowledge your goodness and speak my blessings upon you.”

She recalled how moved she was reading the postcards and how people were aware the vaccine was not just about protecting themselves but also about protecting others – even those they would not even meet.

“I reflected that while one vaccine in a global pandemic might be thought of as ‘a drop in the ocean”, each single drop of a substance changes the entire ocean’s chemical structure too.”

Her poem expands on the words that inspired the exhibition’s title:

“To each of you
Placing a drop of hope
Into this bitter ocean of fear and pain
It is your single drop
That will turn it sweetly salt again”

Poet Shamim Azad’s contribution is a narrative poem, called The Key. It is written in blank verse and in Sylheti, inspired by the great oral tradition of “Puthi” in Bangladesh.

The poem is about the emotional journey of a grandmother from the beginning of this pandemic to the end, with her “eager wait to take the vaccine”.

Shamim added: “The vaccine feels like a ‘key’ to unlock her door to freedom and hope.”

For John Hegley, who also contributed to the project, it was the sense of gratitude that rang out for him.

John Hegley. Photo: Travis Elborough

In 2012 he was the poet in residence at Keats House in Hampstead and he had been thinking about Keats’ work when he wrote his poem.

“In the back of my mind, I had a line from John Keats’s poem Hyperion – ‘So on our heels a fresh perfection treads’. I hoped to bring in such a perspective.

He added: “That line really jumps out. It is relevant to this time and this project. So many of the postcard contributions were looking to the future.

“In my poem, the last quote I have from the public [‘a new freedom on the horizon’] is about looking towards the future and really did seem to echo what John Keats said.”

Isobel Colchester, chief executive of Poet in the City, said it had been a “massive privilege” to work on the project listening to the experiences of thousands of people passing through the vaccination centre and “communicating these through new poetry”.

She added: “This work is hugely important for poetry, a true expression of how poets connect us when we need them most, through words which are at once deeply personal and reflect a common experience.”

Meanwhile, Sam Barrell, chief operating officer at the Crick, who helped set up the vaccine centre and also volunteers within it, said: “These poems and the rainbow they form are a fantastic illustration of the strengthening ties between science and society during this pandemic, particularly with the rollout of life-saving vaccines.

“We’ve vaccinated thousands of people within the centre and it’s amazing to have an insight into what this means for them, for our volunteers and for our neighbours.”

A drop of hope: poetry from a vaccination centre is available to view at The Francis Crick Institute, 1 Midland Road, NW1 1AT until August. See www.crick.ac.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/a-drop-of-hope and www.poetinthecity.co.uk/a-drop-of-hope-poetry-from-a-vaccination-centre

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